Ten years of full-time travel have taught us all sorts of lessons, but one of the first ones we learned remains the most important: pack light. It can be a challenge to reduce your luggage to carry-on size, but it’s the single best thing you can do to improve your travel experience.

To listen, hit play below or find episode 307 in iTunes, Stitcher or Soundcloud:

Benefits of packing light

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People are often impressed by the fact that Craig and I travel full-time with just carry-on sized bags, but the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. They include:

  • We have less stuff to keep track of.
  • We don’t have to check bags on budget airlines, which saves us money.
  • This also saves time, as we don’t have to wait for our bags at the airport.
  • Our bags are never lost by airlines because they are always with us.
  • We always have access to all our stuff.
  • We can use public transport more easily, which saves us money on taxi fares.
  • Walking around with our bags isn’t a problem, so we don’t need to take taxis or pay for luggage storage.
  • We don’t hurt ourselves by carrying around heavy bags.

Disadvantages

Of course, there are some drawbacks:

  • We have to do laundry more often than many travellers.
  • We don’t have many clothing choices.
  • We occasionally don’t have an item that would have been useful, so we have to buy it.

How to get down to carry-on size

To tell you the truth, it took us some time to reduce our luggage to carry-on size. When we first started travelling in 2006, we both maxed out the baggage allowance on our flights to the UK: an 80 litre backpack each, two overstuffed carry-on bags, and a handbag. We justified this by telling ourselves we were planning to live in Malta for six months, so we’d certainly need all of the things we’d packed.

We didn’t.

We didn’t need all that clothing, we didn’t need the DVD collection, and we certainly didn’t need the enormous sleeping bags taking up a third of the space in our backpacks. Before we left Malta we managed to get rid of the carry-on bags, and a year or so later replaced Craig’s large pack with a 50 litre one. When it was time to replace my backpack, we went for a carry-on sized one, and we finally downsized Craig’s bag a couple of years after that.

Every time we reduced, we cut out items that had become essentials. Our stovetop espresso machine was one of the last luxuries to be left behind, and it was a wrench to say goodbye to it. Sure, it sounds decadent to carry a coffee maker, but it had been our trusty companion for years, making mornings bearable and occasionally causing spectacular accidents that involved cleaning the ceiling.

You could follow our lead and slowly reduce your belongings until they fit in a 35 litre bag, or you could start the way you mean to continue. Be ruthless. You really really don’t need as much stuff as you think you do.

A step-by-step guide

  1. Start by getting a really good bag that fits most airlines’ carry-on bag requirements: 55x40x20cm. Depending on your travel style, you might prefer a suitcase or hybrid bag over a backpack; we like backpacks because they are light and convenient to carry, and we really hate the sound of wheelie bags rolling over cobbles. Make sure the bag you choose can be locked for security and that it is comfortable.
  2. Make a list of things you want to take with you, or use someone else’s list. Actually write it down, grouping items into categories. Then start cutting things out.
  3. Compartmentalise. Use stuff sacs or packing cubes for your clothes, and keep similar items together. I have one bag for underwear and another for my other clothing, and I know that if these two bags are full, it’s time to throw something away. You might like to use packing cubes for miscellaneous items and electronics, and it’s logical to keep all your toiletries in a toiletries bag.
  4. Lay everything that’s on your list out on your bed, organised by compartment. Cut down each section — be particularly ruthless with toiletries. Pack it all into your bag, and if everything doesn’t fit, take it all out and cut down again.
  5. Allow yourself a luxury or two, but don’t go crazy. If your hairdryer makes your life better, take it with you, but you might have to leave the coffee pot behind in that case.

So, what to take?

We find it helpful to think of each section of our bags as a room in a house. Sleeping gear is the bedroom, toiletries is bathroom equipment, and so on. You might find a more elegant categorisation system, but this one works for us!

Bedroom:

Depending on your preferences and travel style, you might not need any of these items. We find the sleeping bag liners great for adding an extra layer of warmth when blankets are thin on the ground, and invaluable in less-than-salubrious guest houses and hostels. Earplugs are great for flights and noisy environments, and I’ve recently discovered the value of an eye mask, as a surprising number of rooms aren’t equipped with adequate curtains.

  • Silk sleeping bag liner.
  • Eye mask.
  • Earplugs.
Fox eye mask and ear plugs
I’ve found an eye mask and earplugs to be invaluable.

Wardrobe:

We pack for all seasons, and tend to layer up in colder climes. If you’re not going into winter anywhere you can leave the thermals behind, though we’ve needed them in the height of summer when the weather turned on us, so we’re always happy to cart them around.

  1. Five pairs of undies (and a couple of bras, if you use them).
  2. Four or five pairs of socks. Good quality ones, you’ll be walking a lot.
  3. Sneakers or hiking shoes. Avoid hiking boots though, unless you’re planning on doing a multi-day walk.
  4. Flip-flops or lightweight sandals.
  5. Lightweight nice shoes (optional). Linda has a pair of ballet flats that take up very little room and keep coming in handy.
  6. Three t-shirts or vest tops.
  7. Two nicer shirts or tops.
  8. Two thin long-sleeve tops.
  9. Two pairs of trousers, preferably non-wrinkle. If you’ll be hiking, consider the zip-off variety. Jeans aren’t the best choice as they are very heavy and slow-drying.
  10. Shorts or a skirt for the beach. I have a nice dress too.
  11. A sarong can be handy for girls and guys — as beachwear, for heading to the shower in or as a spare sheet.
  12. A heavier jumper (but not very heavy or bulky). Fleece is a good option; Craig uses a down jacket.
  13. A rain jacket.
  14. A sun hat and/or sunglasses.
  15. Sleepwear if you use it.
  16. A belt.
  17. A swimsuit.
  18. Thermal underwear if going somewhere cold. Merino wool is good and black is always a good colour — you might be able to use your thermal top as an outer layer.
    Hat, gloves and scarf if heading into winter anywhere.

Bathroom

Remember to keep your toiletries to the bare minimum, and if you’re flying all liquid containers must be smaller than 100ml. Check tube size when buying toothpaste and moisturiser and buy several 100ml plastic bottles for shampoo, hair gel, and sunscreen. We tend to buy larger containers of these items and just decant the last

  • A lightweight fast-drying towel

Toiletries

  • Deodorant.
  • Soap and/or shampoo.
  • A toothbrush, toothpaste, and dental floss.
  • A comb, hair gel, and hair ties.
  • Nail clippers and tweezers.
  • Moisturiser and sunscreen.
  • A razor, and shaving gel or oil.
  • Contact lenses and solution, eyedrops.
  • Makeup if you use it. Limit yourself, though! I carry eye liner and lip liner, that’s all.
    Lip balm
  • Sanitary pads, tampons, or a moon cup.
Small toiletries in a plastic bag for flights.
Remember to buy small-size toiletries whenever possible: check those tube sizes.

Fist aid kit

  • Your essential medication.
  • Pain killers. We carry both paracetamol and ibuprofen.
  • Loperamide for upset stomachs.
  • Bandages and sticking plasters.
  • A sewing kit.
  • Blister plasters if you’ll be hiking.
  • Kitchen (optional)

    We often like to cook for ourselves, and having a few lightweight items makes that a lot more feasible. If nothing else, pack a couple of sporks so you can eat a takeaway salad or pot of yoghurt on the road.

    • A set of Orikaso fold-flat plates. (They seem to be out of production, try Fozzils instead)
    • Sporks.
    • A knife (though you’ll have to throw it away if you’re flying).
    • Snack food.
    • A water bottle.

    Our kitchen equipment included Orikaso plates, sporks, a peeler, and a knife.
    Our kitchen.

    Lounge/office (a.k.a. technology)

    Since we work while we’re travelling, we carry more electronics than many travellers, and a fair proportion of our luggage comprises cables. If you take nothing else, a smartphone is a useful accessory: use it to access the internet to keep in touch with home and make bookings (among other things), entertain yourself with books and games, and take photos. We’ve found the alarm and torch applications on our iPhones invaluable in recent years. A Kindle or other ebook reader is a great idea if you like to read, and a battery pack can save your bacon if your phone battery doesn’t last as long as you’d like it to. Whatever you do, don’t forget the power adapter — we love our travel adapters which allow almost any device to plug into almost any socket around the world.

    • A smartphone.
    • A Kindle.
    • A computer or tablet.
    • A backup harddrive.
    • Battery pack.
    • Various cables and chargers.
    • A power adapter.
    • Camera (or just use your phone).

    The junk drawer

    There are always going to be miscellaneous items which don’t really fit into any category! Most of these are essentials, though, so don’t leave them behind.

    • A padlock for securing your bag.
    • Documents (in a document wallet). In addition to our passports, we have vaccination certificates, birth and marriage certificates, various driver’s licences, transport passes for a few cities, copies of our glasses prescriptions, and a spare credit card.
    • Your wallet. You’ll probably want to have this on you; make sure it’s stocked with a credit or debit card, an ID card, and cash for the country you’ll be travelling in.
    • Umbrella/pack cover. Optional but useful!

    To listen, hit play above or check in iTunes, Stitcher or Soundcloud.

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    Your thoughts on "The pack light podcast: how to travel carry-on size"

    • Great post! Found a couple of items I will check out (even though I probably shouldn't looking at the space I have left). Question: Do you use any particular carry-on bag? Minaal? Tortuga? Something else?

      on October 7, 2015 at 6:31 pm Reply
      • Thanks Momo! I use the Aarn Backfavour, which is great. It's starting to sit a bit low on my hips though, I might need to replace it. Craig has a North Face Overhaul 40, which is fine but doesn't have a waist harness. We spent over a year trying to find the right bag for him, and this was the closest to perfect we could find.

        on October 9, 2015 at 4:13 am Reply
    • Finding a really good bag is essential. How good is one bag depends on how many stuff you could fit in it. It doesn`t matter what color is the bag. Love your list. I am going to print it. Greetings!

      on October 12, 2015 at 6:33 am Reply
      • Thanks Lindsay! I agree, a good bag is really important.

        on October 26, 2015 at 10:41 am Reply
    • I caught up with this post yesterday (so glad your podcasts are back in action!), and couldn't help but smile when twice you mentioned 'the kitchen sink' .. the quintessential sign of the over-packer? I travel light, but would never leave home without my kitchen sink! I use it to wash out clothes every couple of days. (I wring the clothes dry in a towel, drape them carefully somewhere, and they usually dry overnight, especially in Europe where the air seems drier than at home in Australia). I initially travelled with a universal plug, but could never get it to hold the water in a sink. My kitchen sink solves that problem. I use an ultralight version now - takes almost no space, but has the disadvantage of being a little flimsy, compared to my older slightly larger version. The larger one can stand alone and holds water reliably - the smaller one I tend to use only in a sink/shower in case the sides collapse. But it's still my favourite, because it's so small and handy. Useful on picnics too, and for soaking tired feet ..... http://www.seatosummit.com.au/products/kitchen/ultrasil-kitchen-sink/ http://www.seatosummit.com.au/products/kitchen/kitchen-sinks/ My friends always scoff when I tell them I travel with a kitchen sink, but there've been quite a few converts over the years. :-)

      on October 28, 2015 at 8:54 pm Reply
      • That's awesome! I've never heard of someone *actually* travelling with a kitchen sink -- but if it works for you, that's great. Everyone's carrying something that other people think is odd, sometimes we just don't admit it. Craig carried around a plastic basin for soaking his feet in during our last camino, looks like your sink would have been a much better solution!

        on October 29, 2015 at 2:42 am Reply

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